J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr.,

Engineer, Mathematician,

Inventor of Shielding for Gamma Radiation


J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr.

Born: November 27, 1923

Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois

B.S. Mathematics (1940) Uiversity of Chicago

Ph.D. Mathematics (1942) University of Chicago
thesis: Multiple Integral Problems in Parametric Form in the Calculus of Variations; Advisor: Magnus Hestenes

additional degrees: Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering (1957) New York University; Masters of Mechanical Engineering (1960) New York University

Research Interests: Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Physics, Nuclear Engineering

Clark Atlanta University

At the age of 13, J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. entered college at the University of Chicago and at 17, received his B.S. in Mathematics and ranked in the top 10 in Mathematics' famous undergraduate Putnam Competition. At the age of 19, in 1942, he became the seventh African American to obtain a Ph.D. in Mathematics (from the University of Chicago). He was described in national newspapers as "the Negro genius." After working as a mathematician for many years, Dr. Wilkins sought to get some practical education. Wilkins was the second African American to be named to the National Academy of Engineering.

Wilkins' parents, Lucille Robinson Wilkins and J. Ernest Wilkins, Sr. were successful in their own right. Both had graduated from the University of Chicago, Lucille was an educator (?) while Wilkins, Sr. whose Bachelor's degree was in Mathematics, was an accomplished attorney. In 1954, President Truman appointed Wilkins, Sr as Assistant Secretary of Labor, and he was appointed to the 1958 Civil Rights Commission.

Early in his career Wilkins was insulted by the American Mathematical Society and has never since attended an AMS Meeting in the Southeast. Lee Lorch recorded this piece of history about Wilkins and racism in mathematics in 1947

Wilkins was a few years past the Ph. D. ... He received a letter from the AMS Associate Secretary for that region urging him to come and saying that very satisfactory arrangements had been made with which they were sure he'd be pleased: they had found a ``nice colored family" with whom he could stay and where he would take his meals! The hospitality of the University of Georgia (and of the American Mathematics Society) was not for him - he refused. This is why the meeting there was totally white.

Immediately after the Ph.D. Wilkins was a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study at the completion of his appointment, no research university would employ him. Thus, much of Wilkins' active career was with government or industry and all of his academic career was in HBCU institutions: Tuskegee, Howard, and Clark Atlanta.

Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. was Instructor of Mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute from 1943-1944, Associate Physicist to Physicist on the Manhattan Project from 1944-46. From 1946-1950 he worked in Buffalo New York as a Mathematician for the American Optical Company. From 1950-65 he served as a Senior Mathematician, Manager of Physics and Mathematics, and Manager of the Nuclear Development Corporation of America. In 1957 he obtained a B.M.E. (Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering) from New York University. In 1960 he earned an M.M.E. (Masters of Mechanical Engineering) from New York University.

From 1960-70, Wilkins was Assistant Chairman of the Theoretical Physics Department and Assistant Director of the Atomic Division of General Dynamics Corporation from 1960 to 1965. In 1970, Dr. Wilkins was appointed as Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University. Dr. Wilkins was a joint owner of a company which designed and developed nuclear reactors for electrical power generation.

Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. is a past President (1974) of the American Nuclear Society. One of Wilkins' major achievements has been the development of radiation shielding against gamma radiation, emitted during electron decay of the Sun and other nuclear sources. He developed mathematical models by which the amount of gamma radiation absorbed by a given material can be calculated. This technique of calculating radiative absorption is widely used among researchers in space and nuclear science projects. In 1976, Wilkins was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. is certainly one of the greatest Black Mathematicians.

videocassette: Wilkins, J. Ernest, Jr. Optimization of extended surfaces for heat transfer. A joint AMS-MAA lecture presented in Baltimore, Maryland, January 1992. AMS-MAA Joint Lecture Series. American Mathematical Society, Providence, RI, 1994. 1 videocassette (NTSC; 1/2 inch; VHS) (60 min.); sd.; col. ISBN: 0-8218-8090-X

SUMMA Wilkins web site: http://www.maa.org/summa/archive/WilkinsJ.htm